A few months ago here at Aaron Torres Sports, I decided to start a new interview series called “How It All Started.”
The premise was simple: With so many people in high school and college looking to get into the sports media field, and so few resources out there on how to do so, I thought it might be a good idea to track down some of my favorite writers, radio hosts and TV personalities to see how their careers started, and what advice they’d give to young people trying to reach the same level of success. And it’s safe to say that the series was itself a success early on, as I interviewed New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman and Yahoo Sports Columnist Dan Wetzel within the first few weeks, and they shared lots of great information.
Well after a short hiatus, “How It All Started” is back, as earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview ESPN Radio’s Freddie Coleman. Coleman was incredibly gracious with his time sharing his road from college football player, to Top 40 radio host and the blind luck that brought him to ESPN Radio in 2004.
So how did it all start for Freddie Coleman? Let’s take a look…
Q. Doing some research on you it looks like you were a fairly prominent athlete in your younger days. Were you somebody who always envisioned yourself in sports? Were you going to play as long as your body and physical capabilities allowed you to? When did you start thinking, ‘You know what, I might not be playing sports the rest of my life, but I still want to be involved?’
The litmus test for me was when I had the opportunity to work for the New York Jets (football camp) between the summer of my junior and senior year of playing college football at Mansfield University (Mansfield, PA). When we’re all that age, we all think we’re going to do something like that for the rest of our lives, because when you’re young and free and single, that’s how you always think it’s going to be.
But it never turns out that way. Only the few and the proud get to do something like that, and working at that summer camp convinced me that the NFL was never going to be for me. I was never going to have the ability to do something like that, because I don’t think people realize what kind of super humans are out there who have the opportunity to play a pro sports. Whether they’re a superstar or a back-up.
So I was going to get my degree in communications anyway, but I was going to be steadfast about it, and make radio and television my life’s work, and put that whole ‘National Football League’ thing on the backburner.
Q. People grow up wanting to write for the New York Times or be an anchor on Sportscenter, but that isn’t always the case with radio. Did you kind of fall into radio? Or was it something that you knew from Day 1 that radio was the medium you wanted to pursue most passionately?
Growing up in New York City, you have a chance to listen to so many different radio formats and so many different personalities, it either gets into your blood or doesn’t get into your blood, and in my case, it got into my blood early.
Once I got into college and started to major in mass communications, I knew that was something I wanted to do. I had done TV stuff on campus, but nothing grabbed me like radio grabbed me, and (at the time, I thought) I was going to be that next radio personality who took over the world, because when I graduated from college in 1987, sports talk radio wasn’t even anything. Sports talk really got started at WFAN in New York about four months after I graduated from Mansfield in May of 1987, so the thought of even going into sports talk wasn’t on anyone’s radar because it really hadn’t existed until WFAN made sure that it existed 24 hours a day.
Q. Wow, I never really realized that the medium was so new. So without it, were you going in (to radio) thinking I’m going to be a play-by-play guy?
No, I never really had sports broadcasting in my mindset because I was so focused on becoming a Top 40 radio personality or classic rock radio personality. That’s what I got started doing in Portland, ME, and once I was able to do that, that’s where I thought my vocation was going to be, and I was happy with that because I was doing something that I wanted to do and something that I really loved to do. But anytime you have a plan in place something will just up in its place and take you in a direction that you could’ve never expected.
Believe me, I am still a big fan of WFAN and love sports talk radio. But I never believed for a second that I was going to be part of that. It was something I kind of put on the shelf and let collect dust, because it was something I never thought I was going to be able to do.
Then slowly from my travails from Portland, ME to Poughkeepsie, NY and slowly doing all this radio and TV, sports talk radio became a happenstance in 2003 in Albany, NY, and I haven’t looked back.
Q. So it wasn’t until 2003 that you were sports full-time? Up until that point you were Top 40, you were music, you were in that genre of radio?
Yeah, I didn’t even think about that (sports).
I guess it started when I had a few buddies who did a radio show in the Hudson Valley, and I would be a guest on their show every week. I enjoyed doing it, but I didn’t really look at as ‘trying to break into the medium’ as much as it was just helping them out, and that’s as far as I thought it was going to be. At that time I was also working sports for Cablevision in the Hudson Valley, shooting stuff and on camera, and we were covering Marist basketball, and I thought, ‘Ok, maybe I can get good enough at being a color analyst or play-by-play and I can move up the ladder doing that.’
Anyway it was in 2003 a buddy of mine was doing radio in Albany and wanted to do a sports talk show, and the first person he thought of was me. So we did trial shows in the summer of 2003, management liked it, gave us trial shows and we got our own show in February 2004.
Q. Wow, that’s an amazing story. So to backtrack, it was about this time, April/May of 2003 where you had no visions of doing sports, so what was it like to all of a sudden just wake up one day and all of a sudden you’re going to work, talking about the big game for two or three hours on the air?
It was something I was going to do anyway, because you do that with friends or family, yell at the TV, whatever.
I thought that was as far as it was going to go with me, so when I had a chance to do that, I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to change myself, I’m still going to be me, just talking into a microphone instead of talking with friends and family.’ You can only be true to yourself, no matter what form of media you can be in.
So that was always going to my approach whether I was in Albany, NY or at ESPN radio.
Q. Yeah, and the thing that I’ve noticed is that you do strike me as the kind of guy who would be on the couch every night watching the game, even if this wasn’t your vocation. And what’s also interesting to me is that everyone does things differently. Certain radio shows cover certain sports more heavily, I’ve heard others like Colin Cowherd say that he likes the sociological aspects of sports more than the games themselves. But you strike me as the kind of guy who likes the X’s and O’s, the matchups, things like that.
I know what I’m all about, and I don’t mind storylines. I like storylines. If somebody is great storyline like Kevin Durant- a humble superstar who is also a cold-blooded assassin, but yet he doesn’t worry about fanfare, he doesn’t worry about being a global icon, he only worries about being the best he can be for his team- and to me, that’s always going to be a great storyline. I also don’t mind the other side of that too, the Chad Ochocinco’s of the world, or the Terrell Owens’ of the world either.
So that’s what I bring to the table. I try to accomplish as many things as possible, but to also try to break it down to a language that people can understand.
Q. And to follow-up on that point, what do you consider a ‘great show?’ Like any other job, you have days where you’re happy with the product and days where you felt you could’ve done better and you have days where you killed it and want to go another two hours. In your own specific mind, and with your own specific show, what do you consider a ‘great show?’
Everything about it gets me going. I know that may seem like a stock answer, but here’s why I say that: It doesn’t matter if a big game or big storyline, I’m always interested to hear what someone is going to say after it. If I am listening to someone, I want to hear the way they feel about it. It could be the way I feel, or something completely different from the way I feel. And that’s what makes a great show, if somebody feels strongly about something- whether I agree or disagree- to me that’s where shows take a different level.
I think a great show can be anything it’s supposed to be on that given day. If you have a great show last night between Oklahoma City and San Antonio, and now Oklahoma City has gotten a leg up, it’s up to me to say “Here’s why that happened,” or “Here’s why I’m surprised that happened,” or “San Antonio is ok” or “This is a coronation for Oklahoma City.”
Whatever you take out of that, you bring that to the table and let everyone else decide. If I’m driving or listening on the computer and the host does that to me, that’s when I know I’m hooked. And the minute you have them hooked, that’s when you know you have a great show.
Q. How important are your callers to your show? I know that depending on the night you can’t take as many callers as others, but I know that when I listen to sports talk radio a lot of times it’s the callers who have the most unique and interesting viewpoints. How much do you value the opinions of the people listening to your show?
I think you have value them, but you have to put them in their proper perspective because you can’t let callers take over your show. At a certain point someone listening is going to say ‘Ok, I tuned in to listen to Freddie, but now so-and-so is taking over the show,” and when they take over the show the danger in that is your boss might be listening, somebody may be really good as a caller and they have really good viewpoints, and (your boss) is thinking, ‘I’m paying somebody to do that and they’re not doing it.’ The next thing you know you’re fighting for your job because you let people outside of your station to take control of your show.
That’s when you have to be very judicious with your callers. People are calling in to hear what you had to say, not what someone in Oklahoma, or Hawaii, or New York has to say. At that point the show has gotten away from you, and once it gets away from you, you can never get it back.
Q. That’s a good point, and what I do feel like is that when I listen to sports talk radio, a lot of the best hosts can take a sound bite, a sentence, two sentences and, to use a newspaper term, “Push the story forward.” Does that make sense?
Absolutely. In this day and age where you have people shorter attention spans, you have to have something compelling for two minutes, or three minutes, or five minutes. The days of people listening for an hour or two hours are an aberration, they’re not the rule.
So when you do have somebody listening, you have to make it compelling, because if it isn’t, too many people have too many other options, and they’re not going to stick with you to see if you’re going to say something more interesting. They just don’t have that kind of time.
Q. Do the numbers suggest that people only tune in for a minute or two because they don’t have the time, or because this is an ever-evolving society where they bounce from one thing to the other to the other?
Yep, you have to adapt to how society is, and that’s why we’ve aligned ESPN Radio to that level. Even now if a TV show doesn’t capture me in the first couple minutes, I turn it off and don’t want to be bothered, because it doesn’t seem like something I’ll be interested in. It’s the same thing in music radio, it’s the same thing with anything I read online; you have to be eye-catching, you have to make sure if someone’s listening, you have something to keep them. The days of mailing it in, or reading the newspaper aloud, you can’t do that, because they know. That’s why you’ve got to really make people care about the things that they want to care about, or things they had no interest in caring about, so that the next time you’re on, they’ll want to tune in.
Q. So how has that helped your show evolved since 2003? Are you just more direct? More succinct and more to your point because you know your window is smaller and people are moving quicker?
The thing about it is, when I first started people said that you have to draw things out, and I always wondered about that. I’m glad that the people we have at ESPN Radio that point was proven right. In other words, get right to it because people don’t have time to waste. And if you’re going to tease something for five minutes, you better deliver on it.
That’s something I learned in music radio: To tell people what was coming and then let them decide if they wanted to stick around to hear it. But if you told them that something was coming, that Eric Clapton was coming up next, you better make sure that the next record they heard after the commercials was Eric Clapton, and if you didn’t, you might lose them and never bring them back.
That’s always been my approach with everything; because if I don’t have time to waste I have to imagine everyone else doesn’t have time to waste either.
Q. To follow-up on that, do you have things now that you were able to take out of those early days on Top 40 radio when you were doing music and not even thinking about sports? How were the things you learned then helping you now all these years later?
The one advantage I have from music radio that I know I have that advantage over other people is I know how things work from the standpoint of, ‘Ok, why are these songs played more often than some of the other ones.’ Or ‘why do I have to care about this song or album?’ And you learn how to talk up those things and frame it in a way that I don’t have to drag it out. Not everyone is going to like every record, but I’ve heard so many people say ‘I didn’t like that record when I first heard it, but the more I listened, the more I liked it.’ And so I said to myself ‘That’s because they kept playing it enough where you had no choice.’
It’s the same thing in sports talk radio where you can make people think about something that they don’t want to even think about, or have someone give credit for something that they don’t want to give credit for, because you’re able to open their eyes a little bit.
Q. You know I can’t believe it, but I never asked: How did the ESPN opportunity come up?
Well I was doing sports talk from about February 2004 to April 2004, when I came to ESPN Radio.
The way it worked was that the general manager was driving through my area one day and liked what he heard. When he came back and had a Monday morning meeting with his staff, he didn’t realize that one of his producers was a friend of mine, Jason Barrett. Jason said “I know exactly who he is, I have his phone number right here.” So they called me, brought me down for an audition, and after that they asked if I wanted to come work for them, I said yes and I’ve been at ESPN Radio ever since.
Q. So for Freddie Coleman, timing really was everything, huh?
And I tell people all the time: You never know who is listening.
I’ll give you an example: I’ll never forget I was filling in on a show called ‘The Sports Bash’ and I had Mike Golic on talking about retired NFL players, health benefits, and how the retired players were really coming down on the current players. And the producer at the time got in my ear and said, “Yeah, Gene Upshaw was listening and he wants to chime in on this conversation.”
So we bring on Gene Upshaw, who was the head of the NFL Players Association at the time, and he and Mike Golic had a great back and forth debate. And I said to myself ‘What if I had mailed it in, and asked him a few (easy) questions.’ But I wanted to hear what Golic thought about it, and Gene Upshaw heard it and wanted to state his position at the time on why he felt the retired players weren’t owed anything.
It was 10 minutes of quality radio and I said to myself ‘That old adage is true, you just never know who is out there listening.’ So just give it your best effort, and they might end up coming back again.
Q. Yeah and that’s something I try and take with me, more so in my writing, is that you just never know who is watching, reading or listening to your work.
And also to, you have to be completely 100 percent honest. Even if everyone is saying one thing, if you don’t feel that way, you don’t have to follow the herd and follow that mentality because if everybody is wrong, you’re the one who is going to look more like an idiot because you decided to follow everyone else. If you believe 100 percent in your heart what you’re saying, then you don’t have to apologize to anybody, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.
Last year I picked the Dallas Mavericks to beat the Miami Heat, and people were crushing me, telling me that the only reason I was saying that is because I wanted to be different from everyone else. And at that point I said to myself, ‘I can play in that sandbox, or I can explain to everyone my position.’ I explained my position and left it alone.
Well a few weeks later when Dallas won the series, I didn’t have to throw it in people’s faces, because people knew not only that I picked Dallas, but why I picked them as well. Even if the series didn’t turn out that way, I can handle the bullets and arrows, but I was not going to follow everyone else.
But people will never have to question that I’m not being myself. I’m being Freddie Coleman, and I’ll always bring that to the table.
Q. As we start to wrap up, let’s talk about the show for a minute. Take us a little into your preparation. How much is preparing things in advance, and how much is winging it on the fly?
The thing is, I always try to look at the bigger picture. So say the Heat win by 25 tonight (this interview was conducted just hours before Boston’s Game 5 win in Miami), the three things I’ll take from that are:
1) What does it mean for Game 6?
2) Is this the last stand for Boston, because we know if they don’t win (this series) the ‘Big Four’ era is over?
3) How did Miami win Game 5? Was it a case of Boston not playing well? Or did Miami play so well there was nothing Boston could do.
I always try to find hidden things, the story within the story. Basically I want to try and find out- or at least have an opinion on- what led up to that headline. Anyone can make something sound compelling if it’s a two point game and LeBron James hits a game-winning shot. That sets itself up. But I always like when a game doesn’t end up how we thought, ‘What led to that?’ ‘What does it mean for these two teams?’
Q. It’s interesting you say that, because I have a friend who hosts a radio show in Atlanta who has told me his favorite month to work is July, because that’s when the great radio hosts, the great sports columnists, whatever, have to work that much harder. Anybody can host a quality radio show in September when college football and the NFL are going on, but not so much in July. Do you enjoy doing a radio show at this time of year because of it? Do you have a preference?
I don’t prefer any time of year to be honest with you, because I have the same approach whether a lot of things are going on or if a lot of things aren’t going on. I don’t take it that way, and I’m not going to insult my audience because I feel like I have to work harder in certain months than in other months. I never take that approach.
To me, I don’t take the approach of I’ve got to work harder, but every time I go on the air I take the approach of ‘How can I make this the best show I can possibly make it for the listeners out there.’ To me it doesn’t matter how compelling a game was or how compelling the story was. That’s cheating the audience.
Q. I’m basically out. Anything about the radio industry, about your career that you think people reading should take with them?
The one thing I always wanted to do, no matter if it was radio, TV, whatever, I always wanted to make sure I got something out of it and left a little behind. If you take something but also leave a little bit behind, you’re always going to have great experiences. Don’t look at it as “I’m doing this, and this is going to be a stepping stone.” That may be the case, but make sure to take something out of it to bring with you to your next job, and that you can bring with you for the rest of your life. Anytime you get a chance to be versatile, learn as much as you can. Use that knowledge as much as you can.
Be sure to follow Freddie on Twitter @ColemanESPN
Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones
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